“Is there anywhere in the Bible that shows Jesus laughing?” asked the Rev. Susan Sparks at the beginning of the 9:15 a.m. Thursday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. Chautauquan Susan Hughes had stopped Sparks after her presentation at the Interfaith Lecture Tuesday and asked the question.
“The short answer is no, not in the Gospels; there is nothing about joy,” Sparks said. “But in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, there is a phrase used several times, ‘and the Savior laughed.’ ”
Sparks took a short diversion from her sermon topic, “Check Your Weapons at the Door.” The theme was angry words and the Scripture readings were James 3:3-5, Proverbs 18:21 and Psalm 141:3.
Sparks and her husband were on a motorcycle trip near Yellowstone. She was wearing an open face helmet and momentarily took off her glasses, and a bug hit her in the eye. It hit her eyelid, but “it felt like a meteor coming at me. I was not pleased and I am sure the bug was not happy either,” she said.
They stopped at a Cody, Wyoming, hospital to get her eye looked at and she noticed a large sign at the front door: “Check Your Weapons at the Door.”
“Is that sign for real?” she asked the nurse looking after her,
“Honey, this is Wyoming,” the nurse said. “You have no idea what people come in packing.”
The sign was important to keep people safe in the hospital, Sparks said.
“There is a lot of talk about weapons today — nukes, drones, WMDs, AK-47s — that we need to seriously consider checking at the door,” she said. “But there is a more dangerous and equally scary one that each of us has. We are all packing heat with our personal WMD — the human tongue.”
In Proverbs 12:18 it says “rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” We are all familiar with the damaging power of words, Sparks said, that can sting like bugs at 70 mph. They tear apart families, cause jealousy and anger, and lead to prejudice and racial slurs.
“Fifty-two percent of young people have been bullied online,” she said. “These words are spoken and written because the fingers are the extension of the mouth. Hurt-filled words that are spoken, written, texted or tweeted are part of an arms race that must stop.”
In the letter of James, he tells his readers that a bridle in the mouth of a horse can control it, and that a great ship is guided by a small rudder.
“So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits,” Sparks added. “There has to be a way to bridle the tongue, to check our weapon at the door along with other, dangerous, human-made weapons.”
The first way she suggested to check the weapons is to take responsibility for what you say or write.
“I know that pasta is done when I throw it against the wall and it sticks,” she said. “When we treat words like that, they always stick. I wish we had autocorrect for the tongue.”
One day Sparks was texting a parishioner and thought she had sent: “Our prayers are with you. You have family in NYC.” When she checked the message, it read, “Our prayers are with me, you have family here not.”
The parishioner had a sense of humor and wrote back, “I pray my pastor will master autocorrect.”
There is no autocorrect in life; we can’t take things back and we will be held accountable, Sparks said. As baseball player Willie Davis said, if you step on people in this life, you are likely to come back as a cockroach.
The second way to check our tongues, Sparks said, is realizing there is power in shutting up.
“We need to take a Shabbat, a rest, for our mouths and listen,” she said. “We think by the inch, talk by the yard and show people the door by the foot.”
Author Stephen Covey said that we don’t listen to understand, we listen to reply.
“I know that from my training as a trial lawyer, I was always looking for something to say that was sparkly, intelligent or would win the argument,” Sparks said. “But we do this naturally in our own lives.”
If we only listen to reply, we are only listening with our mouth, she said. If we listen to learn, we are listening from the heart.
“Let’s give our mouths a Shabbat,” she said.
The third suggestion was that words can change the world for better or worse. As an example, Sparks told a story of being in a pre-operating room with her husband, who was awaiting back surgery. A doctor entered the cubicle of the patient next door who was waiting for surgery and said: “You are going to hate me after this operation. This is the most painful surgery I do.”
In contrast, her husband’s surgeon came in and said: “Let’s do this. You will be taller and stronger because of me.”
She also shared the story of a father playing catch with his son in a local park. The small son had a glove about the size of his head. The dad would throw the ball and it would drop to the ground. The father kept moving closer and throwing the ball, and it kept dropping to the ground. Finally, he walked up and put the ball in the glove.
“That was great, good for you,” he said to his son.
“What an indelible footprint that dad made on the flexible psyche of his son,” Sparks said.
People are hungry for love and affirmation and every word has an impact on them. We can change them and the entire world with our words, she said.
“Do your words lift up and leave people better than you found them or are they WMDs?” Sparks asked. “We can get all worked up packing heat, making the tongue a destructive weapon, or we can make it a tool for healing and change the world for the better. Check your weapons at the door.”
The Rev. Virginia Carr presided. Linda Bennett read the Scripture. At the invitation of an old friend, Rowland Bennett, she made her first visit to Chautauqua in 2013. They returned for the 2014 season and became engaged and then married that New Year’s Eve. She has been a member of both choirs since the 2015 season and played clarinet in the Chautauqua Community Band since that same summer. The Motet Choir sang “Let This Mind Be in You,” by Craig Courtney. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the choir. The Jane Robb Shaw Hirsh Endowment and the Edmund E. Robb-Walter C. Shaw Fund provide support for this week’s services.